Certain presses might automatically come to mind when you’re thinking about book collecting, such as Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press in England, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, or Losada in Buenos Aires. Larger presses also published some of the great works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet we rarely think about academic press books when discussing collectible or rare books.
A recent piece in The New Yorker discussed how Duke University Press was working to “move theory into the mainstream," discussing how academic press books rarely have "crossover appeal" to the broader public. While that article produced significant debate—with some applauding the ability of a limited number of academic presses to create a "footprint in popular culture" and others arguing that all academic works do just this—it also revealed how books published by academic presses are not often purchased by mainstream readers or circulated in the same ways as trade press books.
In thinking about academic press books, we want to explore some rarer and more collectible objects. Are there academic press books that are highly sought after by collectors? While the notion of a "collectible” book is subjective, we want to look at some books from academic presses that might have a higher market value than expected.
Josef Albers and Yale University Press
The first book we want to call your attention to is Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color (1963), published by Yale University Press. Albers was an artist who originally taught at the Bauhaus and later at Black Mountain College and Yale University after immigrating to the United States. Albers was the head of Yale’s design department for many years, where he developed his color theory work that became the book Interaction of Color. As such, it might not be as surprising that the book was published by the academic press linked to the university where Albers worked. At Yale, Albers taught several students who went on to do significant work in modern and contemporary art, such as Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Serra.
When Interaction of Color was published, it was an edition of only 2000 copies, of which 50 were numbered and signed. Yale University Press reissued the book in 2009. If you want to purchase one of the first editions, particularly one of the 50 that Albers signed and numbered, you’ll likely need to set aside more than $10,000 (and perhaps significantly more).
Have you heard of Belknap Press? While you might not have realized it, Belknap Press is an imprint of Harvard University Press and has been around for longer than you might expect. Indeed, the imprint was born in 1954 and has been an imprint for works by Walter Benjamin, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Picketty, and others. The book we want to highlight for you here is the first edition of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971). You may know John Rawls as a prominent political philosopher who considered a wide range of issues about justice and its meanings during his lifetime.
Like Albers was working at Yale when the university press published Interaction of Color, Rawls taught at Harvard when Belknap published A Theory of Justice. Like many hardcover first editions, much of the book's value is in its original dust jacket. There are also occasionally copies on the market signed by Rawls, which can sell for over $20,000.
One of the oldest university presses, Oxford University press has been printing books since the late 15th century and has officially been in business since 1586. It is the second-oldest university press in the world after Cambridge University Press. Given the historical reach of Oxford UP, we're going to take you back much further in time to consider a rare and highly collectible collection published by the press in 1693. That year, Oxford University Press published a first edition of the collected works of John Wallis, an English mathematician, a four-part collection in three volumes. Like the other authors we've cited, Wallis was Savillian professor at Oxford.
The collected works, Opera Mathematica, is extremely rare and sought after. If you plan to add the collected works to your collection, you should know that copies do not come up for sale often and tend to sell for very high amounts. Depending upon the condition and other relevant factors, Opera Mathematica has sold for anywhere from about $10,000 to nearly $50,000 in the last decade.
These books and presses are only a few examples of rare and collectible university press books. If you're interested in the subject, you should undertake your own research to learn more about the books being published by these academic presses and others.